Travel to the Atacama Desert and visit San Pedro de Atacama

by Ale Werner
The dead valley in San Pedro de Atacama

In this post, you will find our guide to travel to the Atacama Desert and visit San Pedro de Atacama, in Chile. If you want to know more before or during your trip to this wonderful desert in South America, read on. What to see in San Pedro de Atacama, what to visit in the Atacama Desert and its surroundings, what to do in the Atacama Desert, where to sleep, how to get around Atacama and much more.

You can access the map here.

The Moon Valley

Located 13 kilometers west of San Pedro de Atacama, this incredible valley reminds of the surface of the moon because of its white colors (due to the salt of the place). It was produced by the erosion of water and wind for thousands of years, forming craters, rocky cliffs and mountains that will definitely impress you.

It has a route of approximately 12 kilometers that can be done by car (own or rented) or by bicycle (if you have a good physical condition and you are prepared). The entrance and exit are for the same place, so the road is two-way traffic.

In the road, you can see formations like The Three Marys, the Amphitheater, the Great Dune, and the Salt Caverns. You can also go up to viewpoints through marked trails. It is important to take your time to see the Valley of the Moon complete when visiting San Pedro de Atacama, because each of its corners is spectacular.

One of the biggest attractions is watching the sunset in the Great Dune, from where the landscape reflects the sun’s rays showing impressive colors.

Most of the tours visit the place during the afternoon to see the sunset, so if you want to see the quieter place you should go in the morning.

Opening hours:

It opens at 06:00 am and allows the last entry at 18:10. From 19:00 the steps are closed to trails and only the large dune is open to watch the sunset.

Price (in chilean pesos)

  • From 06:00 to 12:00: adults: $ 2,500.- Students with a credential: $ 2,000.- Third Age: $ 2,000.- Children up to 12 years old: $ 2,000
  • From 12:00 to 18:10: adults: $ 3,000.- Students with a credential: $ 2,500.- Third Age: $ 2,500.- Minors up to 12 years old: $ 2,500

The Valley of Mars or Death Valley:

Located inside the salt mountains, in this place, you will see rock formations of reddish colors that remember the planet Mars. It also receives the name of “Death Valley” because it is described as one of the most inhospitable places in the world, where nothing lives neither vegetable nor animal.

It is very popular for its huge dunes where people practice sports like sandboarding and the incredible views you can get from its various points. You can also go horseback riding and trekking around the place when traveling to the Atacama Desert.

You can get here by car or bike. There is only one road that runs in both directions. Cars are allowed to enter only till the dunes due to the possibility of landslides and difficulty on the rest of the road for cars and trucks. But, you can walk to the end and enjoy the views, which are magnificent, or get into the car by the road at the indicated point of our map as “photographic viewpoint” and get only the view from above, without walking …

Opening hours:

09:00 to 19:00, every day.

Price:

  • From 06:00 to 12:00: adults: $ 2,500.- Students with a credential: $ 2,000.- Third Age: $ 2,000.- Children up to 12 years old: $ 2,000
  • From 12:00 to 18:10: adults: $ 3,000.- Students with a credential: $ 2,500.- Third Age: $ 2,500.- Minors up to 12 years old: $ 2,500
Valley of the Moon

Kari viewpoint – Coyote Stone:

A beautiful viewpoint to the mountain range of the salt and valley of the moon. Currently, it is forbidden to climb the coyote stone (danger of collapse, do not trespass the barracks). But, there are many other beautiful spots where you can enjoy the view and take amazing pictures.

Many come to this place to watch the sunset. At this time of the day the soil and rock formations take impressive reddish colors.

City of San Pedro de Atacama and it’s surroundings

Púkara de Quitor:

When the Incas arrived in these lands, they brought with them customs like “the púkaras”. These are walls built as protection around cities. In these ruins, called Pukara de Quitor and located 3 kilometers from San Pedro de Atacama, you will find vestiges of a 12th-century fortress.

  • Opening hours: 09:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m., every day.
  • Price: $ 3,000
San Pedro church

San Pedro de Atacama Church:

The main architectural attraction of the town and national monument since 1951. It is built in adobe and stone, with a roof of carob and chañar.

Gustavo Le Piage Archaeological Museum:

A collection of objects that show the evolution and development of the town of Atacama during more than 11,000 years of history. Until 2007 mummies were exhibited, but they were removed at the request of the Lickanantay People because of respect.

Moon in San Pedro de Atacama

Astronomical Tour:

This is a must in San Pedro de Atacama, where we find some of the clearest skies in the world. In general 330 nights or more of the year are clear, which makes it very easy to see the stars and constellations. We recommend you take a tour with an agency that has telescopes, it makes it much more entertaining and explanatory. We did it with SPACE and truly recommend it. More information at this link.

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Remember to book in advance, as the seats are limited and sold out quickly. The price, in general, is $ 20,000 Chilean pesos per person.

Atacama Salt Flats

Located 55 kilometers from San Pedro de Atacama, the Atacama Salt Flats are the largest salt deposit in Chile and part of the Lithium Triangle, which together with the salt flats of Uyuni (Bolivia) and the Dead Man (Argentina) account for more than 85% of the planet’s lithium.

Floating in the Cejar Lagoon

Cejar Lagoon:

In the middle of the Salar de Atacama is the Cejar lagoon, popularly known for its huge concentration of salt that allows you to float freely in it. However, today it is closed and open for bathing is it’s neighboring, the “stone lagoon”, located only a few meters from Cejar.

The place has bathrooms, showers and dressing rooms to change clothes. You can not enter the waters with sunscreen or creams. Young children and people with skin problems should refrain from bathing for security reasons.

  • Price: morning (09:00 to 14:00): $ 10,000; late (2:00 p.m. to 6:00 p.m.): $ 15,000. Children between 7 and 12 years old: $ 2,000

Chaxa Lagoon:

Located in the National Reserve of Flamingos, it is very popular for being a natural habitat for flamingos, as its name says. When you visit it during your trip to the Atacama Desert you can be sure that you will see at least one of this beautiful birds, but during the summer (December to February) the number of flamingos increases and it is much more likely to see large groups.

The trails are marked and getting out of them can imply being expelled from the area, so follow the rules.

  • Price: adults $ 2,500 – Students $ 1,500

Eyes of the Salt Flat:

Its name is given because there are two lagoons of fresh water, in the middle of the Atacama salt flat. Of these, only one is enabled for bathing; the other has difficult access and bath there can be very dangerous. They are quite deep so you can jump from the edges and enjoy the freefall. Access is free.

Tebinquinche Lagoon:

Beyond the eyes of the salt flats is this beautiful lagoon. It’s a big beautiful water deposit in the middle of white salt flats. During the sunset hundred of tourist get here to enjoy the colors that the salt flat and water take with the sunlight.

  • Price: $ 2,000 chilean pesos

4. More on the Atacama Desert

Geysers of the Tatio:

A must-see when traveling to the Atacama Desert. Located at 4200 meters high from the sea level, the Tatio Geysers are formed by hundreds of fumaroles that expel water and steam at more than 80º Celsius. It is the largest geyser group in the southern hemisphere and the third largest in the world, after Yellowstone (USA) and Dolina Giezerow (Russia).

The highest activity of these is concentrated at dawn, between 6 am and 7 am; so most of the tours leave San Pedro de Atacama at 04:00 am because the road is long and difficult. You can also use your own means of transportation to get there; what will allow you to enjoy the return to San Pedro enjoying beautiful landscapes and stoping whenever you want.

Take warm clothing (can get to -20 º in the winter months) and pills or coca tea for puna (caused by height). You can follow our advice on how to dress in low temperatures and how to avoid altitude sickness.

Next to the geysers is a nice hot spring for lovers of hot water. You must bring your own swimsuit, towel and sandals to bath in them.

  • Opening Hours: Open from 05:30 am to 08:30; however, the best time to see the fumaroles is at sunrise, between 06:00 and 07:00.
  • Price: Foreigners $ 10,000 – National $ 7,000

Altiplanic Lagoons

The Miscanti and Miñique lagoons are located at more than 4,000 meters above sea level. They offer a spectacular view of the geography of the Atacama Desert because of its placement in the spine of the Andes Mountains. It is characterized by its volcanoes and mountainous reliefs such as Cerro Miscanti and Meñiques Volcano. Hence the names of the lagoons.

They are more than 100 kilometers away from San Pedro de Atacama, which means a trip of 1 hour and 20 minutes approximately.

Despite the distance, it is worth visiting. Plus… the landscapes along the way are spectacular.

  • Price: $ 5,500

Red Stones Lagoon:

The sector has the name of “Hot water salt flat” but it is commonly called Piedras Rojas (“Red Stones”, because of the stones of the area that take on a reddish color due to the oxidation of minerals, especially iron. This lagoon is located more than 4,400 meters above sea level; remember to take cocaine pills or another for altitude sickness and warm clothing.

This place is located 160 kilometers from San Pedro de Atacama, passing on the road through the Atacama salt flat and the high altiplanic lagoons. Organize your itinerary in advance to arrive early or, at least, with sunlight.

Today the access to the lagoon and the red stones is closed. The indigenous community of the area has closed the accesses due to a negotiation with the government to generate trails and start charging fees.

Puritama hot springs

Termas de Purimata:

The “Puritama thermal baths” are temperate waters that go between 25º and 33º, ideal to relax after visiting the Atacama Desert and explore its many attractions. In total the is 8 natural pools, some small and others larger, located at different levels so you can see small waterfalls between them. They are not always all open because of the weather or because of closed activities of agencies, companies or hotels. In that case, the price does not change, so bear in mind that once there you might not be allowed to visit them all 8 pools.

They are located just over 30 minutes by car from San Pedro de Atacama. Is a perfect place to escape the heat and enjoy a rich bath.

  • Opening Hours: 09:00 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.
  • Price: $ 15,000

Trip to the Salar de Uyuni and Bolivian Lagoons:

There are several tours that leave every day from San Pedro de Atacama to Bolivia. They cross the frontier at Hito Cajones and start a route that can be of 2 to 4 days, passing through several lagoons and landscapes in the Eduardo Abaroa National Reserve (enter here to read more about this place) and the Uyuni Salt Flats. We have dedicated a post to this place, which you can read here.

Important information to plan your trip to the Atacama Desert

Best time to travel to San Pedro de Atacama

The best time to travel to San Pedro de Atacama is during spring (September to November) or autumn (March to May) when temperatures are pleasant. Between December and February, there is a high probability of rain because of the Bolivian winter, regardless it is summer in Chile. Between June and August, low temperatures strike and it can even snow in some places, preventing the entrance and visit of tourists.

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How to get to San Pedro de Atacama

From other cities in Chile:

1. Airplane:

The airport of Calama (El Loa International Airport) is the closest to the city of San Pedro, so if you want to travel by plane to the Atacama Desert you will arrive here. The flight from Santiago lasts approximately 2 hours. There are also direct connections with cities such as La Serena and Antofagasta.

Once at the airport you can take these alternatives to get to San Pedro de Atacama.

  • Rented car: If your idea is to travel the area at your own rhythm and without hiring tours or guides, your best option is to rent a car directly at the airport of Calama. It is recommended to rent cars with traction to access all areas, in general, small trucks or 4×4 jeep. You can find alternatives in RentalCars, where you can summarize all the available companies. Do not know whether to rent a car or not? Well here if it is convenient. Here we tell you why.
  • Transfer from the Airport: The value per person is $12,000 Chilean pesos (may vary according to the season and the size of your luggage). Several operators are located at the exit of the airport offering the transport service, however, to ensure your quota and opt for lower prices, we recommend reserving it in advance. There are many companies that make the trip… here we leave you two that you can book online: Transferlicanbur and Transferpampa.
  • Transfer from Calama: The cheapest way to travel to San Pedro de Atacama is to take a transfer from the airport to the Calama bus station and, from here, a bus to San Pedro.
2. Leased car:

You can get to San Pedro de Atacama in your own car or by renting in other cities, such as Santiago. This option is recommended only if you are interested in visiting other locations and destinations along the way. The journey from Santiago to San Pedro lasts 18 hours, so it will be necessary to stop on the way to sleep and rest.

3. Bus:

Turbus company is one of the main companies in the country and one of the few that offers direct services to San Pedro from cities such as Santiago and La Serena. The journey lasts approximately 20 hours; so we recommend reserving “bed” style seats for your convenience. Book your tickets in advance, especially during high season and long weekends. This way you can also opt for better prices. For more information about prices enter the company webpage. There are other recommendable companies, like Pullman Bus, in this link you can compare the prices of several companies for your dates.

4. Own aircraft:

Who knows? Perhaps one of you has their own plane, and in that case, you can reach the San Pedro airfield directly. The possibility is open!

From other countries:

1. Airplane:

Calama airport generally operates only for domestic flights, so international flights arrive in Santiago. You must make a connection there before continuing the trip to Calama and then to San Pedro de Atacama.

2. Auto / Bus
  • From Bolivia: There are 2 border crossing options, by Hito Cajón and Ollagüe / Abaroa. In general, these steps are also used as a connection to the Uyuni Salt Flats in Bolivia.
  • From Argentina: There are 2 border crossing options, by Paso Jama and Paso Sico.

Check the status of the border crossings before your trip because it can be closed due to weather conditions. They all work between 08:00 and 23:00.

What to do in San Pedro de Atacama

When traveling to San Pedro you can find a huge amount of activities to do in the Atacama Desert for the whole family. From lagoons in the plateau, trekking through the desert, salt flats and walks through landscapes that will remind you to another planet (such as the Valley of the Moon and the Valley of Mars). You can take bicycle rides and do sports like sandboarding. Bathe in one of its hot springs and visit the spectacular Geysers of the Tatio.

Festivals and important dates in San Pedro de Atacama

Festival of San Pedro (Saint Peter)

It is celebrated every June 29 with a parade, dances and lots of music and colors. In general, accommodations are sold out quickly for this date, so you should plan ahead.

Party of the Candelaria

Between January 31 to February 3 the Party of the Candelaria is celebrated, the main religious festival of the Atacama region. Various dances are performed in brotherhoods, where the dance groups are known as “Chinos de la Candelaria” (Candelaria’s Chinese). There are parades of typical dances, music, and masses that celebrate the Virgin of the Candelaria.

Holy Carnival:

Celebrated with parties and typical dances seven weeks before Holy Week (end of February or beginning of March).

What to take on your bag

Sunblock, sunglasses and a hat are really important. The Atacama Desert is one of the places with the highest UV radiation in Chile, so it is essential to be protected.

Whatever the time of year you visit San Pedro and its surroundings, you should always be prepared with clothes for heat and cold. You will find differences in temperatures from 31ºC in the Valley of Mars to -15ºC in the Geysers of the Tatio (which are visited during the sunrise at 4200 meters high).

You will also find hot springs (like Puritama or in the Geysers) and the chance to bathe in the Cejar lagoon. Do not forget your swimsuit, towel and sandals.

If you want some tips to pack your luggage like a pro, you can read our post about it in this link.

Recommendations for your visit to San Pedro de Atacama

The money:

1. Credit cards:

They are accepted in most shops and restaurants, but it is better to ask before sitting down to eat or buy something.

2. Exchange Houses:

There are several exchange houses in the city but the exchange rates are high, it is better to get to the city already with some Chilean pesos in your pocket.

3. ATMs:

There are only 4 in the entire city and it is quite common for them to run out of money especially in high season. This is some of the locations of the ATM’s in San Pedro:

  • Salcobrand Pharmacy: Caracoles 241
  • Farmacia Cruz Verde: Caracoles 359
  • BCI Bank: Vilama 425-D
  • Banco del Estado: Gustavo Le Paige (in front of the old Archaeological Museum)
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Puna’s disease:

It is a condition that some people present when they are at high altitudes from the sea level. It is characterized by dizziness, nausea and headaches, so it is very unpleasant. To avoid it you must:

  • Always stay hydrated
  • Take coca tea or chew it. In the street stalls, locals sell the leaves and sweets.
  • Avoid eating large amounts of alcohol or food
  • Avoid great physical efforts if you already present some symptoms.

You can read more of this disease, also known as altitude sickness, here. What is it, how to avoid it, symptoms, and what to do if you already have it.

Water:

Always drink bottled water, not tap water.

How to move around San Pedro and its surroundings

Move through the Atacama Desert by Bike

You can move between places on San Pedro de Atacama easily by bike. Even at night, it is quite safe. Other attractions close to the city, such as Valle de Luna and the Valley of Mars are also accessible by this means of transport, but only if you have an excellent physical condition and no problems with doing sports at high altitude.

However, much of the attractions (such as lagoons and geysers) can be hundreds of kilometers away, so you would need other means of transportation to get there.

In the center of San Pedro, on Caracoles Street are several bicycle rentals shops. Most of the agencies have.

2. Public transport:

It runs only within the city and is quite limited. There is no public transportation between San Pedro and places like the Altiplanic lagoons of Miscanti and Miñique, or the Cejar lagoon, so you should find other alternatives.

3. Tour operators:

Like any tourist place in the world, you will always find tours to visit the Atacama Desert and any place you want to see. In the city of San Pedro, especially on Caracoles Street (the main pedestrian street), you can find many alternatives for tourist agencies. You should always ask in several agencies and compare prices, because many have promotions that change every day.

The negative thing about this alternative is the rigidity of the itineraries and the timetables in which the destinations are visited, which are in general when there are more people there because all the tours go at the same time. If you are looking for tranquility and calm in your visit, this is not a good option.

4. Car rental:

By far the best alternative for us. The roads and access to all the places are incredibly good and everything is pretty well marked. In any case, a truck or 4×4 jeep is recommended for greater safety.

If you follow the main roads it is practically impossible to get lost and this way you will have full freedom of your schedules and times. With a good map on your phone, you can get anywhere, and the Chilean people stand out for their good disposition if you ask nicely for directions.

An important piece of advice is regarding gasoline. There is only one pump in the city of San Pedro so always go out with the pond full. There are no service stations in the vicinity and the distances can be very large.

Accommodation in San Pedro de Atacama

The city is oriented to tourism, so it is easy to find accommodation in San Pedro de Atacama. However, the prices are quite high and the quality of hostels and hotels is not the best. We recommend booking well in advance to achieve something good at a reasonable price.

All the activities, restaurants, agencies and pubs are in the center, mainly in Caracoles street and its surroundings; so any accommodation near it will be good. You can also stay a bit further and move by bicycle or car (parking is free in most of the streets and the place is quite safe).

Where to eat in San Pedro

The gastronomic offer in San Pedro de Atacama is very varied. Due to the huge number of foreigners and expats who have come to live in the area, there are numerous restaurants serving both national and international food.

Most of these are concentrated in the main street and Caracoles street.

We recommend:

  • La Estaka: Signature cuisine and dishes prepared at reasonable prices. Vegetarian options
  • Las Delicias de Carmen: The dishes are huge, as to share between two people. They do not have a credit card. You can only pay with bank transfer or cash.
  • Burger Garden: A foodcar wish sale of hamburgers with exquisite ingredients and beer. Perfect for lunch after your excursions.
  • Bar Mal de Puna: Located at the entrance of San Pedro from Calama, this bar has a wide selection of drinks and cocktails. The atmosphere is quite entertaining and local, Very few tourists arrive here.

There are also “picadas” or restaurants with lower prices, where you can enjoy homemade food and taste the native flavors of the area.

Shopping

San Pedro is known for being a “town of artisans”. You will find plenty of local products such as painted ceramics, basketry, weaving, wood carving and bronze and copper works, which are typical of the area. Your trip to San Pedro de Atacama will not be complete if you do not take home a souvenir that is typical of northern Chile.

Calle Caracoles and surroundings:

You can find standard souvenir shops at low prices, as well as others with more exclusive products (such as paintings, sculptures, works in silver, bronze and copper and others).

Craft fair:

Located between Licancabur and Gustavo Le Paige streets (in front of the main square) there is an artisan fair where you can buy products and souvenirs typical of the area. In general, all the stores sell the same things and you can negotiate the prices.

Town of Artisans:

Located next to the bus terminal, on Tumisa street, is the village of artisans. Here 15 local craftsmen stands are located on a surface where you can see the production process and buy crafts from the area. They sell animal tissues, volcanic stone, ceramics, bronze and copper jewelry, jewels with stones from the area and much more. Opens daily from 10:30 a.m. to 7:00 p.m, except on Tuesdays.

Scams and dangers in San Pedro de Atacama

San Pedro is a very quiet city. You can walk at night without a problem. Several cases of thefts have been reported to tourists who neglect their things, so always keep your belongings close and use your common sense.

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